Last year, Incheon National University and Yeonsu-gu Municipality participated in a “living laboratory”. This user-centered approach to delivering ‘smart’ technological innovations for traditional problems has been applied to a low-income, multicultural area called Hambak Village. It was part of a larger government initiative that pushed for rapid urban renewal and revitalization of underdeveloped areas in major South Korean metropolitan areas such as Seoul, Busan and Incheon.
For six months, South Korean residents of Hambak village, city officials, university students, professors and researchers came together to discuss innovative solutions to the village’s illegal waste problem for a decade. However, attempts to incorporate what can best be described as an extension of a smart city to a low-income area have led to below-par results. South Korea’s need to embrace science and technology as a metaphorical dressing over the festering wounds of established problems has been a point of contention between the government and the public since the late 1980s.
With the country approaching its next presidential election in less than three months, it is important to observe the effects of the current administration’s approach to science and technology as a point of local comparisons, national and global.
Hambak Village is quite an interesting site. Located under Munhak Mountain, it is about six kilometers from Songdo, South Korea’s first smart city. While Songdo has failed to generate enough international interest to attract enough foreign residents for its vision of a “multicultural city”, Hambak village is 80% made up of foreigners mainly from Vietnam, China, from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The relatively low housing costs in the village of Hambak as opposed to the expensive skyscrapers of Songdo, and the neighborhood’s proximity to Incheon International Airport have made it an attractive multi-ethnic hub. The Municipality of Yeonsu-gu, which is one of the many municipalities in Incheon City, took advantage of this by nicknamed the village of Hambak “City of Russia”, similar to Seoul’s “French Village” in Bangbae-dong. , or “Chinese City” in Daerimdong.
This was also done in part to improve the perception of the neighborhood vis-à-vis foreigners. For about a decade, Hambak village has seen a steady increase in illegal waste that has become a source of tension between its South Korean residents and foreigners.
In the big cities of the peninsula, each municipality has its own waste disposal system, each day of the week being dedicated to specific waste, and different plastic bags assigned to each type of waste; it is considered liable to a fine if citizens do not respect these rules.
However, it had become common to see thrown away household items, overfilled food waste and trash bags littered all over the village of Hambak. With the increase in CCTV payouts over the past five years, the perpetrators have expertly learned how to avoid being seen in the eye of the camera and often indulged in this illegal habit during the evening.
South Korean residents lamented that the influx of migrant workers and immigrant families was ruining the neighborhood with their reluctance to respect and follow the country’s laws.
“They have no sense of pride in the neighborhood” was a common theme spoken by “others” among South Korean residents, who believed that the former felt no connection with Hambak village due to their residential status. temporary.
The rubbish had not only brought to light social problems, but also environmental problems in the neighborhood. The surrounding wildlife that aided the community’s beautification efforts was starting to be affected by the litter, and the “fresh mountain air” that South Korean residents had deliberately moved to this neighborhood was swarming with odors. foul-smelling.
Due to its persistent and widespread prevalence, the municipal office in Yeonsu-gu chose Hambak Village for its experimental ‘living laboratory’, a concept born in Finland in 2006 as part of the European Network of Living Laboratories (ENoLL). This open innovation approach brought citizens and experts together under the democratic rhetoric of solving everyday problems, which was particularly appealing to the Moon Jae-in administration. The administration had pushed for a citizen-centric narrative in support of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, such as AI, Internet of Things and the cloud, regarding their contributions to the advancement of smart cities .
The proximity of the village of Hambak to Songdo made it the ideal site to naturally integrate an intelligent technological approach through a living laboratory; the illegal rubbish around the neighborhood was in clear contrast to Songdo’s efficient underground waste management system, leading the municipality to speculate that residents of Hambak Village would be more supportive of a technological solution.
Students, professors and researchers from the ES Smart City Lab at Incheon National University facilitated the project as mediators between participants from Hambak village and municipal officials from Yeonsu-gu. At the end of six months, after discussion forums, surveys and prototypes, the university offered the neighborhood a “smart” trash system. It was equipped with a large monitor that showed a slide show in Russian, Korean and English on how to properly dispose of different types of garbage and the legal implications of garbage. The monitor also had a camera that would capture images of individuals to avoid future waste. Below the monitor were four motion-sensitive “smart bins” assigned to recyclables, metals, food waste and other types of waste.
For the people of Hambak village, this was a huge disappointment. For city officials, it was an acceptable compromise. For participants at Incheon National University, it was a test bed solution.
The residents had said from the start that the best possible solution to the problem was to form a cultural and language assimilation program at the newly built community center that would teach foreigners how to properly dispose of various wastes. They also suggested that a flashy new technology would be too ambitious for the neighborhood, given its relatively underdeveloped status. The failure of CCTV cameras to improve littering habits was also a cause for doubt about the effectiveness of the technologies.
City officials felt that the “smart” garbage system was the best possible solution under the circumstances. It responded to the state’s desire to see an increase in Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies used in various regions. The living lab also achieved the goal of providing a democratic narrative to a traditionally top-down approach to science and technology.
The ES Smart City Lab at Incheon National University saw the living lab as an opportunity for a “test bed” project. They had already anticipated that the result they provided might not live up to residents’ expectations, but it had to be a prototype successful enough to inspire similar innovations in other neighborhoods facing the same problem.
These distinct responses are indicative of South Korea’s emphasis on top-down growth that has prioritized technological and scientific advancements over sustainability since the 1960s. The social risks of such an approach had been questioned. with the rise of the democratic movement in the late 1980s by a powerful minority of citizens. However, this opposition has been and continues to be drowned out due to a particular fear rooted in national identity: the fear of falling behind other leading nations and of being overtaken by developing countries in a highly competitive global economy. A vision of perpetual growth with the use of the nation’s advanced ICT infrastructure has therefore been accepted by South Korean citizens as necessary and beneficial for the “common good” of national development.
Hambak Village Living Laboratory has shown that the dominant presence of science and technology in social and economic progress has not changed. The ICT sector is of immense interest and importance to the South Korean public, especially in the presidential elections, and it seems likely that this tech-driven perspective will be perpetuated by the candidates in the upcoming elections.
The marginalization of those in the lower echelons of society who do not benefit from technological advancements is likely to continue within the parameters of the national development ideology which favors technology over solutions, technological advancement over sustainable solutions to local concerns.
This perspective on science and technology is not necessarily unique to South Korea. The living laboratory of Hambak village of Yeonsu-gu talks about a larger global phenomenon of nation-states using political rationalities to justify technological projects that do not solve local problems and can instead be used to exacerbate inequalities.